‘The spirits of my ancestors empower me’: jazz great Idris Ackamoor on Afrofuturism, activism and André 3000

Estimated read time 8 min read

The greatest music by spiritual jazz maestro and acclaimed saxophonist Idris Ackamoor suggests a swirling symbiosis between the living and the dead. Take his 2020 song When Will I See You Again?, in which his unfeigned croak of the words “we’ll all be fine” suggests that the “freak storms” of sudden loss will ultimately be replaced by rainbows. Or there’s the more chaotic and wordless Sheba’s Dance Part 2 from 1973. It sounds like Crosstown Traffic played by a revolutionary African tribe, and a flute whistles into the abyss like a shaman hoping to awaken lost ancient spirits. It makes sense that the first instrument the 73-year-old musician ever learned to play was something that carried a link to his ancestors.

“My grandma Mary used to do the laundry for a white family, and they had this old piano that no one ever played,” Ackamoor says, reflecting on a childhood spent largely on the south side of Chicago, where racial segregation was prominent. “The family donated it to my grandma and it was later handed down to me as a seven-year-old. I always have real reverence for my ancestors: whenever I play music, I try to connect to their spirits. I want them to empower me.”

Ackamoor’s music also suggests a dialogue between legacy and innovation. He is a figurehead of the Afrofuturism movement thanks to the way his music merges ancient African instrumentation with a sweaty Oakland funk sensibility to uncover fresh truths about race, lust, death, the environment and our future. Audiences don’t tend to forget about the explosive live shows he gives with his band the Pyramids. Ackamoor not only sings and plays, he tap dances too: DJ Gilles Peterson called their gigs “complete fire”. (Although Ackamoor remains vigorous, undisclosed health issues meant that a planned UK show and other dates were cancelled subsequent to this interview.)

Last year Ackamoor and the Pyramids released Afro Futuristic Dreams: created with a 14-piece band, it turned lyrics about racist policing and fatal chokeholds into galvanising, Fela Kuti-honouring dances of defiance on Police Dem, shifted the ritual of prayer into a bouncing 3am intergalactic groove on Thank You God, and offered up shapeshifting psychedelia on First Peoples. “It might just be my best album,” says Ackamoor, speaking over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “It really shows off me being a composer.”

The wedding of Idris Ackamoor and Margaux Simmons in Lake Ivanhoe, Wisconsin, 1973.View image in fullscreen

The album reaches back five decades to the techniques he learned on a formative tour of Africa in 1973. A mentee of pivotal jazz and blues musicians including Cecil Taylor, Clifford King and Jimmie Lunceford at Antioch College, Ackamoor found his sound during a “trip of a lifetime” touring the continent alongside fellow students Kimathi Asante and flautist Margaux Simmons. The trip cemented Ackamoor and Simmons’ budding romance, culminating in a new band called the Pyramids.

Playing in Ghana, in particular, transformed how Ackamoor looked at music. “We stayed there for three months, just engulfed by the serenity of Ghana,” Ackamoor says, still sounding giddy at the memory. “Going to northern Ghana was a spiritual journey and like moving back 500 years. We played with the king’s drummers in Tamale and we also played music in prayer circles with the Frafra people in Bolgatanga.” He also collected instruments on this trip, whether “the Ethiopian masenqo or the Nigerian goje, which is a one-string fiddle. I learned them all! The African music really felt like it was coming from another planet.”

When he returned to the US, the Pyramids sold albums including Lalibela and Birth / Speed / Merging out of car boots, having struggled to attract the attention of any labels despite growing word-of-mouth buzz from their live shows around Ohio. The music on these records was an obvious extension of the trip’s experiences. On Indigo Suite Part One, the muscular instrumentation sounds like lions groaning one second and war sirens the next; the multi-part Black Man and Woman of the Nile runs on heart-in-mouth drums and evokes a sweltering romance. Ackamoor pressed barely 1,000 copies of these albums apiece – refusing to “play the game”, as his modern label boss Quinton Scott has put it – but to those who were hip, the music felt like stepping into the future: their live shows inadvertently mirrored the communal carnival feel of Sun Ra’s performances, which Ackamoor wouldn’t personally experience until later.

By 1977 the Pyramids had split, fuelled by the breakdown of Ackamoor and Simmons’ relationship (although they have remained close friends and collaborators and share a daughter born in 1975) as well as each member’s desire to embrace new sounds outside the band dynamic. “Margaux Simmons was like my Alice Coltrane,” Ackamoor reflects. “She was my Jean Carne. Our partnership, which really started in Africa, has been through a lot of up and downs. But it’s beautiful that 50 years later, we can still play music together.”

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids performing at Le Guess Who festival in 2022.View image in fullscreen

The Pyramids were apart for 30 years, during which time Ackamoor’s legacy only grew. He continued to turn studies of his surroundings into unique compositions, releasing an Afro-fusion ode to Cuba’s distinctive pink housing. He also formed the Cultural Odyssey theatre collective alongside his partner Rhodessa Jones, which mentors working-class artists, and through the Medea Project which aims to support the artistry of women who have experienced the effects of incarceration and HIV/Aids.

In 2007, Ackamoor reunited the Pyramids, prompted by what he saw as the need to reaffirm jazz and soul’s African heritage. “That is one of the things Cecil [Taylor] taught me!” he says. “The timeline continuum. From the blues to New Orleans to Michael Jackson to Prince to rap music and its use of bass: all of this has its roots in Africa.” The band centred Afrofuturism in 2016’s We All Be Africans and 2018’s An Angel Fell, as well as Afro Futuristic Dreams. “If you look at the Dogon people in Africa, they were the first astrologers and located star systems before the scientists did,” says Ackamoor. “The Griots were chroniclers of African history and they channelled human behaviour. They were a musical vessel to commentate on what was happening in the world and they would transfer dark into light. That’s me, too.”

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Recently, André 3000 and jazz percussionist Carlos Niño drew on Ackamoor’s role in that lineage when they asked him to join the backing band for the Outkast star’s San Francisco show in support of his flute-based album, New Blue Sun. “It was one of the most inspirational things to be recognised,” says Ackamoor. “The start of a new chapter.” Ackamoor is also at work on a theatrical production that features spoken-word monologues by actor Danny Glover, as well as a new song called Now, which Ackamoor is so excited by that he starts spontaneously singing it down the phone: “Live your life, live your life now! / Stop all hate, stop all hate now! / Look into yourself and you will see / A temple that is pure and so holy.” He immediately relates them to “what is happening to Gaza right now – to quote Cornel West: the bestiality of human nature is being shown! My new songs are about finding peace and stopping all this hate.”

My favourite Idris Ackamoor song is Sunset, from 2018, which serves as both a celebration and eulogy for our natural world. Written while Ackamoor was dipping his toes in the water during a trip to Jamaica, every note is an attempt to channel the transcendence of a sunset’s glow. He took the moment as “a sign from the gods to save our world! I thought, we’ve got to save all this beauty for my granddaughter before it is too late. If you look around, there’s environmental signs everywhere. They’re like prayers to save our world. You just have to answer them.”

Ackamoor figured out the lessons that were worth heeding a long time ago. As our call winds down, he recalls a strict music teacher who would beat his fingers with a pencil if 12-year-old Ackamoor played the wrong notes in class. “Ever since that teacher did that, I’ve been revolting against the strict musical regiment,” he says. “For me, there’s no right way to play music. I will always keep my ears open. That’s how you stay young. The energy inside my music means I can live on for ever. I believe we’re all like stardust: we don’t die, we just start again.”

Source: theguardian.com

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